Grace Lethiot Blog #5: The Global Attention Economy and the Classroom



The Global Attention Economy and the Classroom

Last school year, one of the students in my class wrote a blog post expressing her outrage over the fact that living in North America, the African AIDS / HIV pandemic rarely surfaces in our attention. She basically bemoaned the fact that while we are constantly swamped with news and information, important stories such as this are often far buried in our news sources. (if they are reported on at all)

This post has stuck with me.

As a teacher who is interested in students having multiple perspectives on any event or story, and who is interested in students finding their own sources of information, stories like this worry me. How can students gain fair, open, and honest access to global information?

Enter Ethan Zuckerman.

If you are not familiar with his work, you need to take some time to explore Mr. Zuckerman's blog. Affiliated with the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard, he is one of the main designers of the amazing Global Voices site as well. Mr. Zuckerman has designed a website which scrapes the news form over 1700 news sites around the world. This data is then aggregated and pumped out in chart form and as a daily map. His research is fascinating. What it shows over time is that in North America especially, the news that we are swamped by daily is based on the events in relatively few countries:

CNN map

The reds and pinks are the nations which we've received the most news from since 1997, while those in blues and purples are far under represented. When this map is compared to the news that comes from the BBC the results are quite different:

BBC News Map

Much more internationally focussed, with far fewer blue and purple areas, this map shows that this news source is covering the world much more evenly.

Zuckerman's research (and this similar french application) shows that the actual news events that happen in a nation have little effect on North American reporting patterns. Even though hundreds of people may be massacred or a large natural disaster take place, if the event is in Africa or Central Asia, it is much less likely to be covered with any depth then if the event occurred somewhere else. You need to read his entire paper, but basically he outlines that economic and trade relationships affect reporting much more then actual news events.

So what does all of this have to do with classrooms?

  • In the first place, it means that we need to be aware of this bias when we are searching for news sources for our students. If we want them to actually get a full slate of international news, we need to be very careful to not only use North American news sites.
  • Secondly, it means that when students are searching for information on their own on current events, they must break away from North American reporting.

So then where do we go for information?

  • We must be careful to collect and collate international news sites and newspapers.
  • We must use sites like Global Voices that are the real voices of authentic people, always being aware of, and teaching our students how to evaluate these unknown sources.

In a connected world, where we want our students to be aware of global events and trends, where we want our students to become more internationally aware, this is an important issue. Using authentic news sources, where the voices of real people are important, is a sea scale change. This brings with it issues of bias on its own and also drives to the forefront of classroom skills the importance of information access and evaluation. Many international schools do this job of expanding the attention and the perception of students in the global arena in much better ways then many schools do in North America and I believe we have plenty to learn about this issue and ways to combat it for our students.


My comment:

I must say that I completely agree with your views on news bias and how it affects the classroom. I'm a student at Illinois State right now, and we are constantly being pushed to use new technologies and Intertet resources to teach our students. But before students can be sent out into the virtual world, they need to know how to identify their sources. We need to help them understand how to further investigate different sites, and bear in mind that the creators could be very biased. I could not believe the difference in North American news and that from the BBC. Those maps alone are a great teaching tool, not to mention what else we could learn from Ethan Zuckerman.

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